In an era where most technology companies are at least paying lip-service to giving us a break from our technology, North (formerly Thalmic Labs), is making a big bet on getting your technology as close to your noggin as humanly possible.
On Tuesday, the company unveiled Focals, smart glasses designed to sidestep mistakes made by all wearable glasses that came before them.
“We realized that the early smart glasses we’ve seen were approached from a technology-first perspective,” said North Co-Founder Stephen Lake when I asked him how he could avoid the Google Glass-hole curse. Lake said products like that put a computer on your face. You have to start from a design and eyewear perspective, first,” said Lake, “Fit the function to that form.”
North’s Focals do look, more or less, like your everyday lens wear. It’s only when you take a closer look at the stems, the portion of the frames that extend from the lenses and go behind your ears, that the technology waves hello. Near the lenses, the stems are substantially thicker. It where the technology lives, including a battery on one side and a tiny little projector on the other.
Like Google Glass, Focals want to show you notifications, weather, messages and turn-by-turn directions. However, that’s where the similarities end. Lake explained how the display technology is fundamentally different from Google’s ill-fated wearables and most others on the market.
The tiny projector sends beams of light to a small, microns-thick, essentially transparent “Holographic Optical Element” that’s fully integrated into the eyeglass lens. Current frames use clear lenses, but by next year, North will be manufacturing prescription lenses in its Canadian facility, as well.
The holographic lens is a specialized polymer screen that refocuses the light and information directly back to your eye. Instead of seeing a screen floating in front of them, the wearer sees a small, translucent, borderless image just below the horizon line and slightly to the right.
When I questioned the use of the word “holographic,” Lake insisted that the 2D image is a hologram. The initial etching on the thin film is done with a laser and those grooves focus individual points of light with pin-point precision. The effect is akin to one of those luxury car heads up displays.
North smartly did away with touch control, perhaps because of the negative social connotations Google Glass generated with people tapping near their temple and saying, OK, Google.
On the other hand, Focals do integrate Amazon Alexa (the company is an investor). There’s a single microphone on the smart glasses, which Lake says is enough because of the proximity to the head and mouth. Virtually all the commands you can give Alexa, work with Focals.
There is, though, another way of controlling the Focals Smart Glasses. The $999 package, which goes on pre-order today, includes a special ring called the Loop. It’s a little larger than a traditional ring to accommodate a tiny joystick you use to control the Focals glasses. It does not support gesture control, which is ironic considering Focals’ history with the Myo Gesture-Controlled Armband. I told Lake that I didn’t want to feel like I had to carry something extra to use his glasses, but he insisted that beta testers have taken to the ring which they can keep wearing while washing their hands.
Inside the glasses is a Qualcomm CPU and 512 MB of RAM. The system is built to help people use Focals without their voice. In the case of message, notifications, smart replies appear that you can select with the Loop control.
In addition to the Loop, the package comes with clip-on sunglasses and a USB-C-based chargeable case that holds three charges. Lake said the glasses get about 18 hours of battery life per charge.
I noted that most of the smart glasses I’ve seen, including Snapchat Spectacles, come with built in cameras. North decided to leave them out, said Lake, because they found the reaction to built-in cameras on wearables is fairly binary. Some people say, “A camera would be amazing. I could film my kid doing something funny or a pet,” said Lake. For others, it’s “Are you filming me?”
North wants these smart glasses to feel more like glasses than technology. That’s why there are 90-different styles and they take a 3D scan of your face, which they use to can custom build each frame. To get that custom care, you’ll have to visit a showroom in Brooklyn or Toronto. Still, Focals cost almost $1,000 and weigh 62 grams. So, they’re pricey (even by prescription-wear-standards) and weigh more than double the weight of most standard frames. As someone who wears glasses every day, I’m wary of anything that might feel uncomfortable after a few hours. On the other hand, wearable technology feels as inevitable as taxes. Someday, we’ll all be wearing screens on or near our faces. At least these look like the real thing.